Teams gearing up for February 'madness'

Posted: February 25, 2012

March Madness begins in February in South Jersey, and these next few weeks will provide lasting memories, especially for those teams able to win sectional and/or state championships in this one-and-done event.

The momentum builds so quickly, with games played virtually every other day. Those who participate in the tournament, which will begin Monday, will perform in an interminable pressure cooker, which makes this such an alluring affair.

Basketball is such an emotional game to begin with, played in settings in which fans are so close to the action. Throw in the fact that for seniors, each game signals the potential end of their careers, and one can see how much emotion combined with pressure is intertwined in this tournament.

"When you get to this stage, every game, every practice really means something," said Shawnee boys' basketball coach Joe Kessler, who knows a little bit about extending his season.

In the previous 20 years, Shawnee has played in a sectional final 14 times, a staggering 70 percent rate. The Renegades have captured one Tournament of Champions title, five state championships, and 10 sectional crowns, including last year's South Jersey Group 4 title.

Despite that staggering success, Kessler's palms are just as sweaty for yet another potential run at a sectional title. For Kessler, the anticipation seems to heighten with each new postseason.

"There's such a great challenge to it," he said. "You wake up each day knowing that the next round is only going to get tougher."

There are moments that will never leave a player's memory bank, and certainly that is the case for Haddon Township senior Sara DeCinque.

In decades down the line, DeCinque will vividly remember her game-winning three-pointer with 27 seconds left that gave Haddon Township a 47-46 overtime win in the South Jersey Group 1 final last year against visiting Gloucester.

The gym was packed, and when she hit the shot, the decibel level in the Haddon Township gym was off the charts.

Imagine the feeling of hitting the game-winning shot in a championship setting.

"I will never forget that game and that entire experience," DeCinque said.

Not only the outcome, but also the atmosphere that is so prevalent in the state tournament.

"It's such an exhilarating feeling knowing they are cheering for you," DeCinque said. "Our crowd is great."

On game day, there is just a different feel, a much springier bounce in the collective steps of the participants.

"My heart is pounding just thinking of it," said Eastern 6-foot-5 junior Avery Walker, whose team is the No. 1 seed in the South Jersey Group 4 boys' tournament.

The teams that advance are the ones that can deal best with the incredible hype and the pressure, as one subpar shooting night could send a team packing.

"It's a new season," Paul VI girls' coach Donna Camardo said. "No matter how you did in the regular season, everybody is 0-0 and there is such a sense of anticipation."

Teams participate in fall leagues, spring leagues, and summer leagues, just for the right to compete as long as possible in the month of March.

"You play all year round for this opportunity," Eastern boys' coach Joe Murphy said. "It's an exciting time for everybody who enjoys basketball."

Just as in professional sports, there is a different feel to the NJSIAA basketball tournament.

After a long regular season, the madness is upon us, and part of the excitement will be seeing athletes kicking and clawing and doing whatever it takes to extend their careers one nail-biting game at a time.

Contact staff writer Marc Narducci at, 856-779-3225 or @sjnard on Twitter. Find his Rally columns at

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